Monday, 29 March 2021

Out of Chaos: Reading Greek Tragedy Online

by Paul O'Mahony

I’ve worked in theatre for 18 years - as an actor, writer, producer and director. My theatre company Out of Chaos has toured throughout the UK, Europe, USA and New Zealand, winning several awards along the way. Many of our shows have been inspired by Greek and Roman literature, including Out of Chaos, Unmythable and the upcoming Crossing the Sea.

When the world went into (its first) lockdown in March last year, I contacted Lanah Koelle at The Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC to propose a collaboration: we would live stream scenes from different Greek tragedies, with analysis provided by academics associated with the CHS. My intention was to create a community at a time when we were all separated, and to explore these stories for what they might reveal about our current situation. Lanah was immediately enthusiastic; she told me Joel Christensen from Brandeis University had also been in touch about arranging an online group and we decided to meet via zoom on Tuesday 24th March. After working out some (very) rough details we reconvened 24 hours later for our first reading, Euripides’ Helen. We all enjoyed it immensely, and after that we resolved to live stream an episode every Wednesday for the rest of the year. We ended with 41 episodes including all extant tragedies, a few comedies and episodes on the Iliad and Odyssey (plus a 24-hour reading of the whole poem). Each episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online is 90 minutes long, containing approximately 45 minutes’ worth of scenes and a further 45 minutes of discussion led by Joel and different guest academics.

Throughout the course of the year, the project gained momentum with increasing numbers of artists from around the world involved. We were able to call upon brilliant performers, and we became more and more ambitious with our stagings - we had a Cyclops rock opera, a 25-strong puppet Frogs chorus, and an incredible performance of Oliver Taplin’s translation of the Oresteia across three consecutive weeks. One of our most frequent collaborators, Tabatha Gayle, coined the term zoomcraft to describe what we were doing – in essence, taking whatever we could find at home and turning it into the stage we used each week. We played with lighting effects (it’s amazing what you can do with a cheap ring light), camera angles, some limited costume choices. Each week actors made bold, informed, inspired choices to bring their characters to life.

We received appreciative messages from audiences across the world, and inspired play reading groups as far apart as Wyoming and Brasilia. We launched an outreach competiton called Playing Medea, inviting US and Canadian students to film scenes from Medea. This proved very successful and, with generous financial support from the Classical Association, we launched the UK Playing Medea at the end of last year. Full details are on the Out of Chaos website.

This year the live streams are switching to a monthly schedule and we’re broadening our scope. We’re performing Thyestes, the Argonautica and the Iliad (again), and exploring reception from the 17th Century to the modern day.

The series has led to numerous exciting collaborations (not least a new Greek Theatre course developed with the British American Drama Academy), and demonstrated the power of performance as a shared experience. We have plans to work together as an ensemble when circumstances allow, and we’re in the process of planning new ways of sharing our work online, including masterclasses and workshops. All episodes will remain online as a free resource.

All episodes can be found here:

And here:

Playing Medea UK competition:

And here’s a new course that has been inspired by the series:

Paul O'Mahony is Artistic Director of Out of Chaos theatre company.

You can find out more about Out of Chaos on 7 April 2021 during the CA's free online conference, where it will feature in a session on Greek theatre online, an evening of classics-inspired theatre followed by a Q&A chaired by Professor James Robson:




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